Crossing the Mid-Atlas to the Saharan Desert
Trip Start Jan 28, 2012
19Trip End Jan 28, 2013
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Leaving Turkey we hoped to pick up a Moroccan guide-book at the airport but to no avail… she’ll be right, we’ll buy one at the airport bookshop at Casablanca… airport bookshop?! There was not one in sight! We quickly figured out that no-one in Casablanca spoke English, just French or Arabic, but we managed to catch the train to the city, find a hotel that had a city map marked with an English school. The school bookshop only had dictionaries for sale but at least the person could speak English and could direct us to a nearby bookshop… Two bookshops and many French guide-books later, I think we bought the only English Lonely Planet in Casablanca! Phew, at least we could now travel around the country with some slight knowledge to how and where to go!
We decided to do the usual tourist route around the country, but in the opposite direction taking in some of the smaller places along the way. This turned out to be a great way to start our trip in Morocco. Our first three stops were Casablanca to the Imperial City of Meknes and then to the quiet country town of Moulay Idriss that is an important Islamic pilgrimage site, with a short Grand Taxi ride to the Roman ruins of Volubilis. In our first week we hardly saw another tourist, tout or carpet shop!
We continued on the Imperial City journey to Fes, Glen’s blog of our medina adventure will tell it all! Before heading to the chaos of Marrakesh and the medieval party atmosphere of snake-charmers, monkeys, hanna ladies and kid boxers at Djemaa el-Fna. Though the chorus of the street sellers as we walked around was ‘Ali Baba do you want …?’ Glen by this stage was sporting a beard, to which the Moroccan nickname is Ali Baba!
We met some Canadians in Goreme in Turkey, who relived some hippie Moroccan memories for us over dinner and drinks one night and one question they asked of our Moroccan travels was if we were planning to visit the desert? Our initial response was that we had desert in Australia that we visit all the time for work and pleasure, so we prefer to see something different… but as we travelled through the harsh and hot landscape of Morocco we decided as arid ecologists it would be crazy for us not to visit the desert and a chance to see the biggest desert of all, The Sahara!
Marrakesh is full of tourists so we thought that it would be similar to Kathmandu in Nepal that there would be tour operator businesses set up for individual unique experiences. Though upon arrival in Marrakesh we only found dodgy, mass tour operators and not the individual local businesses that we prefer to support. So after some online searching we decided to book a 4-day 4WD trip with a local company Dunelines; Hamid was our English speaking Berber driver who grew up in the desert town of Erfoud. Hamid was great, he had been taking tours for 12 years, was the safest driver we have ever come across and of course knew all the best spots. Our four days took us on a circuit from Marrakesh over the High Atlas mountain pass of Tizi n Tichka (2,031m), where we left the highway and took a dirt road along an amazing red valley full of mudbrick houses surrounded by green and yellow barley fields lining palm fringed springs. The most amazing Kasbah was along this stretch at Telouet, the Glaoui Kasbah stuck in a former time. Amidst the crumbled mudbrick were some amazingly preserved and restored salons with faceted stucco, mosaic floors and walls and painted cedar ceilings with views through ornate windows to the fields and orchards below.
That afternoon we continued the drive taking in Skoura Oasis, Rose Valley; where roses are grown for distilling rose water, then seeing the weird rock formations of Monkey Fingers before arriving at our night stopover of Dades Gorge. The next day we continued onto Todra Gorge, where during the hot summer months most of the desert people holiday in this cooler valley. It was pre-summer but still very hot the day we were there, but the coolness of the gorge had brought all the young Moroccans out for a day’s picnic at the Gorge.
Leaving the coolness of the gorge behind, we drove east heading into the hot desert wind blowing off the Sahara. As the red dunes appeared on the horizon the surrounding grey desert sand turned to black rock and with a grey dusty sky looming over us we squinted our eyes out of the cool comfort of the air conditioning to try to identify any living thing besides goats, camels and Berbers…. Nothing...
Before we took to the dunes upon our mighty camel steads of Bob Marley and Jimi Hendix, we took a plunge in the dusty but very cold and refreshing hotel pool and headed off following blue robes to our desert Berber camp. A pleasant surprise awaited us, the day ended at a quiet Berber camp with some Spanish and Argentinean tourists who we talked very bad Spanish to over dinner, drinks and Berber drumming and we ate yet another tagine before sleeping in the quietness of the desert. We were woken at 5am for a sunrise camel ride out of the desert and back to the hotel for breakfast before jumping back into the 4WD for a third days adventure!
We left the rose coloured dunes of Erg Chebbi behind us and followed the Saharan wind south-west to the Draa Valley. Again, we tried hard to find a bit native flora or fauna amongst the bare rocky landscape, but decided that the only remaining fauna are those antelopes and elephants captured in rock petroglyphs and plants that are too poisonous for goats and camels to eat.
To bring our 4-day journey to the end, we spent an amazing night at Fint Oasis in a little Auberge (La Terrasse des Delices) which was situated beautifully on a lovely quiet village oasis. Our final day heading back to Marrakesh was spent seeing the Hollywood side of Morocco at the Atlas film studio at Ouarzazate where films such as Babel, Gladiator and Kundan (yes that is a Tibetan film that used Morocco as its setting!).
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